Russell Martin’s excellent work with the pitching staff has the Pirates postseason-bound. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
The streak is over! On Sept. 9, the Pirates notched win No. 82 and clinched their first winning season in 21 years. All due credit to General Manager Neal Huntington, who engineered a turnaround that began in October 2007 but did not fully bear fruit until this year. The most impressive aspect of this season has been the total dominance of the Bucs’ pitching staff, even accounting for PNC Park being a pitcher’s environment. All of the team’s starters aside from 2011 first-overall pick Gerrit Cole have been acquired via free agency or trade. It’s a perfect counterbalance to the pre-Huntington era, in which the team tried and failed to assemble a homegrown rotation. In this four-game set, the Cubs will see all but ace A.J. Burnett—whom they have seen plenty this year. Now, the question is whether the Pirates will be able to take the NL Central crown. they presently sit one game back of the Cardinals (and two in front of the Reds) with 17 games to go. The Cubs will have the opportunity to say something about that.
HITTING: 3.9 Runs Scored/Game (T-9th in NL)
The Pirates have built a solid-but-average offense around cornerstone center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The 26-year-old has backed up last year’s breakout season, virtually matching it with a .326 AVG/.405 OBP/.519 SLG slash line that has him well into the MVP conversation. Perhaps one of the best signs of the franchise’s current health is that McCutchen will be part of the team through at least 2017 (with a team option for ’18). Left fielder Starling Marte has also broken out quickly. He is an aggressive, toolsy player at the plate and on the basepaths, and he’s the team’s second-best hitter at age 24. First baseman Gaby Sanchez, second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez all have their flaws at the plate, but they provide enough sock to make up for their low contact rates. Alvarez in particular has shown himself to be an all-or-nothing offensive option, with a 31.5 percent strikeout rate only bested (nominally) by his 32 home runs. Buying low on right fielder Travis Snider apparently wasn’t buying low enough. He hasn’t hit his weight—seriously, a .222 batting average at a listed 235 pounds—and his defense is considered somewhere between below average and average. He has been replaced by comeback-player-of-the-year candidate Marlon Byrd, acquired from the Mets in August. The other big offensive hole is at shortstop, where veteran Clint Barmes continues to provide some of the game’s best defense but has fallen into a split role with fringe guy Jordy Mercer. The fielding overall is quite solid, with a mix of good defenders and aggressive positioning that is the product of a partnership between the field staff and the front office.
PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in NL)
We haven’t yet mentioned catcher Russell Martin, the veteran backstop who has been credited everywhere he’s landed for his solid work with pitchers. Under his tutelage, the Pirates have been hardly recognizable on the mound. Saturday’s starter, Gerrit Cole, is the team’s most exciting pitcher, a 23-year-old out of UCLA whose four- and two-seam fastballs both sit in the 95-98 mph territory. He pairs those offerings with a couple of hard breaking balls and a good change-up. Many observers have been puzzled by Cole’s sudden erosion in strikeouts (from roughly 25 percent of batters faced to 19 percent), but it has come with a pound-the-zone approach that has him walking just 5.4 percent of batters and getting a lot of ground balls. Both acquired from the Braves in 2009 for Nate McLouth, left-hander Jeff Locke and righty Charlie Morton start tonight and tomorrow. Locke has a decent fastball-curve-change repertoire with reverse platoon splits, but his control issues mean he is probably the odd man out in the playoff rotation. Morton has a power sinker that has led to a career year across the board, though he has been the most hittable of the Pirates’ pitchers. Finally, lefty Francisco Liriano closes things out on Sunday. He has reclaimed his effectiveness, largely by resolving years of serious command issues. The bullpen deserves special attention for its quality and depth, an unbelievable turnaround from what was undoubtedly the team’s downfall in the second half of 2012. Mark Melancon stepped in beautifully for closer Jason Grilli after the latter suffered an injury midseason. The former will hold onto the role for now, but both are ninth-inning assets regardless. Justin Wilson, a power arm from the left side, is just one great option manager Clint Hurdle can use from the seventh inning on.
The Cubs announced their tentative 2014 regular season schedule Tuesday.
The team will open the 2014 campaign on the road on Monday, March 31, against the Pirates. This is the second year in a row the Cubs have opened on the road and the 10th time in the last 13 seasons.
Friday, April 4, will mark the Cubs’ home opener, which will be against the Phillies. This is the first time the Cubs have hosted the Phillies for their home opener since 1990. It will also kick off the 100th season of baseball at Wrigley Field.
The 2014 schedule features eight interleague series, including the annual home-and-home set against the White Sox. The Cubs and Sox will again play four games, with the first two taking place at Wrigley Field on May 5-6, immediately followed by two games at U.S. Cellular Field on May 7-8. The North Siders will also host the Yankees from May 20-21, the Rays from Aug. 8-10 and the Orioles from Aug. 22-24.
The Cubs will head to the new Yankee Stadium for the first time in the organization’s history on April 15-16. They will also journey to Fenway Park for a three-game set with the Red Sox from June 30-July 2.
St. Louis comes to town for three series from May 2-4, July 25-27 and Sept. 22-24 next year. Below is the complete schedule.
@Pittsburgh Pirates – 3/31, 4/2-4/3
Philadelphia Phillies – 4/4-4/6
Pittsburgh Pirates – 4/8-4/10
@St. Louis Cardinals – 4/11-4/13
@New York Yankees – 4/15-4/16
Cincinnati Reds – 4/18-4/20
Arizona Diamondbacks – 4/21-4/24
@Milwaukee Brewers – 4/25-4/27
@Cincinnati Reds – 4/28-4/30
St. Louis Cardinals – 5/2-5/4
Chicago White Sox – 5/5-5/6
@Chicago White Sox – 5/7-5/8
@Atlanta Braves – 5/9-5/11
@St. Louis Cardinals – 5/12-5/15
Milwaukee Brewers – 5/16-5/18
New York Yankees – 5/20-5/21
@San Diego Padres – 5/22-5/25
@San Francisco Giants – 5/26-5/28
@Milwaukee Brewers – 5/30-6/1
New York Mets – 6/3-6/5
Miami Marlins – 6/6-6/8
@Pittsburgh Pirates – 6/9-6/12
@Philadelphia Phillies – 6/13-6/15
@Miami Marlins – 6/16-6/18
Pittsburgh Pirates – 6/20-6/22
Cincinnati Reds – 6/23-6/25
Washington Nationals – 6/26-6/29
@Boston Red Sox – 6/30-7/2
@Washington Nationals – 7/4-7/6
@Cincinnati Reds – 7/7-7/10
Atlanta Braves – 7/11-7/13
All-Star Game @ Minnesota– 7/15
@Arizona Diamondbacks – 7/18-7/20
San Diego Padres – 7/22-7/24
St. Louis Cardinals – 7/25-7/27
Colorado Rockies – 7/28-7/31
@Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – 8/1-8/3
@Colorado Rockies – 8/5-8/7
Tampa Bay Rays – 8/8-8/10
Milwaukee Brewers – 8/11-8/14
@New York Mets – 8/15-8/18
San Francisco Giants – 8/19-8/21
Baltimore Orioles – 8/22-8/24
@Cincinnati Reds – 8/26-8/28
@St. Louis Cardinals – 8/29-8/31
Milwaukee Brewers – 9/1-9/3
Pittsburgh Pirates – 9/5-9/7
@Toronto Blue Jays – 9/8-9/10
@Pittsburgh Pirates – 9/12-9/14
Cincinnati Reds – 9/15-9/17
Los Angeles Dodgers – 9/18-9/21
St. Louis Cardinals – 9/22-9/24
@Milwaukee Brewers – 9/26-9/28
Joey Votto has been a big source of the Reds’ offense this season. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Four of the Cubs’ remaining six series put them squarely in the NL Central spoiler role, as they take on each of the division’s top three teams. All three are virtual locks to make the playoffs, but on the line is one berth directly into the NL Division Series round. Tonight’s opponent, the Reds, are 1.5 games back of the Cardinals and in a tie with the Pirates for home field advantage for the one-game playoff. Cincinnati’s season has been a tale of two sides of the ball, with the offense playing out as a stars-and-scrubs affair and the pitching having performed as one of the league’s best from No. 1 to 12. Over the last month, the Reds have been competitive in nearly every contest, with 19 wins in 30 games and just one loss by more than three runs.
HITTING: 4.3 Runs Scored/Game (2nd in NL)
After five months of play, it’s apparent that GM Walt Jocketty could not have done a better job of addressing his team’s most longstanding weaknesses: on-base percentage and the leadoff spot. He killed two birds with one stone by swapping Drew Stubbs for Shin-Soo Choo in center field. Whereas Stubbs brought outstanding defensive range and a huge hole in his swing and plate approach, Choo brings a plan to the dish that has overcome an adventurous year back in the middle of the diamond. Choo’s .291 AVG/.425 OBP/.471 SLG slash line is barely behind first baseman Joey Votto’s .303/.430/.494 performance so far. Both provide plenty of baserunners and power that help Cincinnati make the most of their entire lineup. Votto has a clear leg up against left-handed pitchers, however: Choo has hit .209/.347/.239 against southpaws this season, part of a dramatic downward trend over the last several years. Manager Dusty Baker hasn’t really elected to protect Choo against his platoon issues, however, so tonight’s starter Travis Wood, as well as bullpen lefties James Russell, Zac Rosscup, and Brooks Raley, will be expected to neutralize the top-of-the-order threat. Beyond Choo and Votto, only right fielder Jay Bruce has stood out (both for his production and his strikeouts). Second baseman Brandon Phillips is one of several players with an on-base plus slugging percentage right around .700, though some insightful lineup construction puts his pop in the cleanup spot, a great place to drive in Choo and Votto.
PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (T-3rd in NL)
The Reds have assembled one of the game’s most unsung staffs, tied with the Pirates for third in run prevention but probably even better than they look considering the hitter’s haven Cincinnati calls home. The three starting pitchers the Cubs will see this series—Bronson Arroyo, Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake—won’t instill fear in any batters, but the numbers suggest they should. Arroyo is having yet another well-above-average season, the fourth in five seasons for the 36-year-old. The right-hander’s fastball doesn’t really get out of the 80s anymore, but a combination of pitching backward, deception and pitchability have him looking as good as ever. As a testament to his athleticism and ability to repeat his delivery, one need look no further than his walk percentage since 2008: 7.8%, 7.0%, 6.7%, 5.3%, 4.2% and finally 3.7%. Cingrani, on the other hand, is far from established, having thrown just five big league innings before this year. The 24-year-old is a 6-foot-4 lefty, who was a 2011 third-round pick out of Rice. He’s thrown his fastball over 80 percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball, but it plays up due to good low-to-mid 90s velocity and great extension on the mound. The series closes out against Mike Leake, the 2008 first-round pick who is having his best season in his four big league campaigns. He’s another Reds pitcher with very good command and the ability to sink or cut his fastball to avoid barrels. The Reds bullpen has been just as outstanding as the rotation, though the relievers provide more firepower. Closer Aroldis Chapman, once again in the triple digits from the left side, leads a group that leads the majors with a 25.6 percent strikeout rate.
Clayton Kershaw and the streaking Dodgers have opened up a 9.5-game lead in the NL West. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty)
No team in baseball is as hot—or as dangerous—as the Cubs’ next foe, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Winners of 46 of their last 58 games, the Dodgers’ meteoric rise saved the City of Angels from having two giant busts in 2013. In fact, LA has emerged as the National League’s most feared team, with a lineup and pitching staff that is at peak performance right now. All of this despite their superstar, Matt Kemp, having played only 62 games because of various thigh, ankle and shoulder ailments. In fact, it would be fair to say center field has been the Dodgers’ weakest position this year—with much credit due to the rest of the roster.
HITTING: 4.0 Runs Scored/Game (6th in NL)
Despite some initial concerns, the Dodgers have struck gold with a pair of 31-year-old stars acquired from the Red Sox just over a year ago: left fielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Crawford has managed to play 91 games this year and has a .300 average and .352 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot, far surpassing his two disappointing seasons with the Red Sox. Gonzalez isn’t a big bopper anymore, but he should clear 20 homers with roughly a .300 batting average and a decent amount of walks. Neither has matched what shortstop Hanley Ramirez has accomplished this year, a striking turnaround after a precipitous three-year decline with the Marlins. In 65 games, Ramirez has hit for a .339 AVG/.390 OBP/.613 SLG line that recalls his age 23-25 seasons. And of course there is right fielder Yasiel Puig, the 22-year-old Cuban defector whom Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully calls the “Wild Horse.” He’ll slug (to the tune of .342/.402/.547 in 73 games), he’ll launch some missiles from the outfield, and he’ll run through any stop sign. Puig also will chase any fastball up in the zone, so Cubs pitchers face the delicate task of getting some whiffs up without leaving a pitch out over the plate. So far, that looks like it’s much easier said than done.
PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (4th in NL)
For all the balance in the field, the Dodgers may be able to match it on the mound. The Cubs will see three of the Dodgers’ best in this series, starting with Zack Greinke tonight. The right-hander is a true six-pitch pitcher, who will mix it up with a fastball he can sink and cut, a couple of breaking balls, and a change-up. The 29-year-old has lost a little bit of velocity over the years, but he has always had very good command and feel for his fastball. His 2.91 ERA this season would be the second-lowest of his career, behind only his Cy Young-winning season with the 2009 Royals. The Dodgers will then send 2013 Cy Young frontrunner Clayton Kershaw to the mound on Tuesday night. The 25-year-old is rumored to be on the cusp of agreeing to a massive contract worth more than $200 million—and he might just be worth it. The left-hander has established himself as one of the game’s best pitchers, with an remarkable 1.72 ERA that could garner him his third ERA title in a row. Kershaw has not only mastered his own mechanics—an off-balance delivery that created consistency issues in his younger days—he also has taken off with the increased use of a slider the last few years. He’ll overpower with a deceptive mid-90s fastball, a hard slider and a hammer curve that is one of the game’s best. The Cubs wrap up the series against Ricky Nolasco, a veteran right-hander acquired midseason from Miami. He has reinvented himself as a groundball pitcher over the last three seasons and is having the best success of his career. The bullpen closes out with a pair of live arms: Sinkerballer Ronald Belisario sets up the nasty natural cutter of closer Kenley Jansen.
Former Cub Andrew Cashner will take the mound Sunday for the Padres. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
The Padres have one of the most highly regarded farm systems in the game, but their big league competitiveness hasn’t come yet. They sit in fourth place in the NL West at 57-70, with a July-August collapse erasing a couple of winning months in May and June. Alarmingly, their pitching staff has really disappointed this year, ranking next to last in NL run prevention. Their lineup hasn’t been able to put things together consistently, either. The team lessened some of PETCO Park’s more extreme fence distances—particularly in right field—though the ballpark still plays to pitchers. The cool marine layer will likely dampen fly balls for the two night games on Friday and Saturday.
HITTING: 3.8 Runs Scored/Game (11th in NL)
The Padres’ infield of Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko, Everth Cabrera and Chase Headley is one of the game’s more promising young foursomes, but none of them has had great success this year. Gyorko brings a great hit tool with some pop, but he hasn’t provided much since missing a month with a groin strain. Cabrera was suspended as part of the Biogenesis investigation. On one corner, Alonso hits for a good average (.279 in two years with the Padres), but he has just 15 home runs in 243 games. On the other, the solid-fielding Headley has disappointed to the tune of a .235/.325/.363 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line a year after breaking out with 31 homers and a .286/.376/.498 line. And many more Padres are missing in action, including catcher Yasmani Grandal (torn knee ligaments), first baseman/outfielder Kyle Blanks (Achilles), center fielder Cameron Maybin (knee) and left fielder Carlos Quentin (sore knee).
PITCHING: 4.5 Runs Allowed/Game (14th in NL)
Friday’s starter, Edinson Volquez is just one example of some big regression in the Padres pitching staff. He has a 5.72 ERA and has lost effectiveness on his biggest weapon, the change-up. This might be tied to some lost fastball velocity. Like the rest of the staff, Volquez strikes out too few and walks too many to succeed, at least on the road. The team’s 4.89 road ERA is nearly a run and a half higher than they post at home. Saturday’s starter Eric Stults, an unheralded journeyman, is having his best season at age 33, but the lefty doesn’t get out of the high 80s with his fastball anymore and is a fairly conventional craftsman (albeit with a big mid-60s curve). He’s shown excellent control this year, and he’ll use his four pitches against batters in any count. Sunday’s starter is a familiar face for Cubs fans: Andrew Cashner. Part of the Anthony Rizzo deal, Cashner has continued to cope with injuries, though he has racked up a career-high 137 innings and 21 starts so far. His power slider still has proved to be a nasty pitch, though he’s not getting many whiffs as a starter. The Padres bullpen wraps up with three reliable arms the team has held onto despite interest from contenders. Closer Huston Street keeps batters in front with atypically below-average velocity for a ninth-inning stopper, while Luke Gregerson and Dale Thayer work with more conventional fastball-slider combos.
Bryce Harper has been the focal point of the Nationals offense all season long. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
After last year’s comfortable romp to the postseason, the Nationals were pegged by nearly everyone with a BWAA card and a laptop to repeat in 2013. Then came injuries to outfielders Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, the complete implosion of second baseman Danny Espinosa’s game (leading to an extended trip to the minors), and injuries to two rotation regulars. That rash of bad fortune exposed a somewhat shallow organization that should consider itself fortunate to still be distantly in contention for a Wild Card spot. And we mean distant. The Nats’ overall lack of consistent play has left them with just a 2.0 percent chance of making the postseason (according to Coolstandings.com), as they sit 15.5 games behind the NL East-leading Braves and 9.5 games back from one of the two Wild Card spots.
HITTING: 3.79 Runs Scored/Game (13th in NL)
The Nats couldn’t get Harper and Werth back from the DL fast enough. With the slugging duo out, the only National having a great season at the plate was shortstop Ian Desmond, who is proving his 25 homers in 2012 were no fluke. But Adam LaRoche has predictably reverted back to his usual form after a big year in 2012. To make matters worse, center fielder Denard Span and catcher Kurt Suzuki were supposed to provide veteran stability, but both have been among the worst regulars at their positions. Span was dropped from the leadoff slot for a few weeks, and Suzuki has cleared out of the lineup to make way for a healthy Wilson Ramos. In the Nationals’ desperation to add offense, they sacrificed some up-the-middle defense with a quick-fire conversion of third-base prospect Anthony Rendon to the keystone. Though he added offensive punch, he’ll need to improve his footwork, especially on the double play. The Nationals also added former Cubs outfielder David DeJesus to the mix on Monday. The 33-year-old signed with the North Siders as a free agent prior to the 2012 season.
PITCHING: 3.97 Runs Allowed/Game (6th in NL)
The Nationals have had their share of problems in the rotation, but they still have some tremendous weapons. Jordan Zimmermann—Monday’s starter—and Gio Gonzalez are both at the top of their game, and Stephen Strasburg remains one of the most dominant pitchers in the league. He’s scheduled to throw on Thursday. Even Tuesday’s starter, Dan Haren, has turned it around of late, earning four wins in his last five starts. Closer Rafael Soriano has been competent at nailing down saves, but a declining strikeout rate doesn’t inspire confidence. With top set-up man Tyler Clippard and former closer Drew Storen sharing the late-game chores, skipper Davey Johnson does have options if serious trouble crops up. But the rest of the ’pen hasn’t earned Johnson’s confidence, as the Nats have churned through 10 other relievers searching for the right combination.
Adam Wainwright will throw Sunday against the Cubs. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
The Cardinals have spent most of the season at or near the top of the standings in the tough NL Central—meaning they could be considered one of the best teams in baseball—but they do have some weaknesses. Although their league-leading offense is great at piling on runs in blowout wins, they’re 15-14 in one-run games. Add in some problems with outfield defense, and overall they’re fairly mediocre in the field. But when you have the strongest lineup in baseball and two of the league’s best starters, you have to be less than perfect somewhere else, right? The Cards’ veterans—Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday—are all having strong seasons, but it’s the rookies who have really made the difference. The youngsters are the main reason St. Louis has been able to withstand a serious rash of injuries.
HITTING: 4.88 Runs Scored/Game (1st in NL)
The Cardinals offense can destroy weak starters and tear middle relievers to pieces. They may not be the sabermetric ideal, with a league-average walk rate and a lot of quick at-bats, but Yadier Molina (fresh off a DL stint), Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter are all hitting better than .314, and they put a ton of well-hit balls in play. Veteran outfielders Holliday and Beltran provide the pop, but when one of them needs a day off, the Cards can rotate Craig to the outfield and spot-start the best bench bat in baseball—sweet-swinging rookie Matt Adams, who carries an .813 OPS into the series. To make matters worse for opposing pitchers, David Freese looks like he’s finally shaking off the rust of his slow start. If there’s anything the Cardinals don’t do well, it’s run. They attempt to steal less often than any other NL team, but with their powerful offense, why risk handing the defense an out?
PITCHING: 3.73 Runs Allowed/Game (5th in NL)
The Cardinals have done well given the body blows they have taken in the rotation, first losing co-ace Chris Carpenter for four months and then Jaime Garcia for the season. But Sunday’s starter Wainwright has a great shot at winning the NL Cy Young Award, and Shelby Miller could claim Rookie of the Year honors. The question is whether they’ll find a third mate to solidify a postseason rotation. Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook (Friday’s starter) are good innings-eaters, but the Cardinals are monitoring Carpenter’s comeback in the hopes he’ll recover from his shoulder injury and round out their rotation for the stretch run. They could also use another reliever with swing-and-miss stuff beyond the hard-throwing Trevor Rosenthal. Forkballer Edward Mujica isn’t a classic closer, and while playing matchup games with righty Seth Maness’ heavy sinker and situational southpaw Randy Choate has worked well enough so far, they’ve been auditioning hard-throwing farmhands all year.
Mat Latos has served as the ace of the Reds staff. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
The Reds pulled into the 2013 All-Star break with a better record than they had at the same point in 2012, when they finished with the second-best mark in baseball. But things are different this year in the NL Central, baseball’s toughest division, where Cincinnati is locked in a three-way race for the crown with Pittsburgh and St. Louis. With seven games left against the Cardinals following the Reds’ trip to Wrigley Field, and six of their last nine against the Pirates, Cincy and perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto will have several opportunities to make up ground in the division race. And they could be poised for a better second half, as they were two games below their expected win-loss record at the break. If the Reds can make a late-season surge to the top of the NL Central standings, it would be the first time the organization has claimed back-to-back division titles since the Big Red Machine did it in 1975-76.
4.30 Runs Scored per Game, 3rd in NL
The Reds owe much of their offensive success to generating lots of walks and stockpiling power hitters who can exploit Great American Ballpark’s comfortable dimensions. But one of those strengths is more precarious than the other. The lofty on-base percentage stems from just two regulars: leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo and Votto. Once again, Votto is leading the attack with his league-best OBP and walks total, but he and Choo are the only reliable on-base threats. The Reds lineup is stacked with multiple righties who struggle against right-handed pitching. Reds hitters from the right side combined for a .609 OPS against right-handers in the first half. With cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick out since the first game of the season, a big question has been power in the middle of the order.
3.68 Runs Allowed per Game, 3rd in NL
The silver lining to putting ace Johnny Cueto on the DL three separate times is that his absence has given the Reds the opportunity to break in top lefty prospect Tony Cingrani, who has lived up to his advance billing thus far. Monday’s starter Mat Latos is logging another fine season as the front man of a rotation that has no true weak link. The staff’s youth and relative health have allowed manager Dusty Baker to avoid getting too involved with a bullpen left short-handed by injuries to veterans Sean Marshall and Nick Masset. Only the Nationals go to the ’pen less frequently than the Reds, and Baker prefers to avoid bringing his relievers into runners-on situations or using them on consecutive days. If there’s a mystery as big as Homer Bailey’s swings between excellence and mediocrity (Tuesday’s projected starter tossed a July 2 no-hitter surrounded by three losses), it’s closer Aroldis Chapman’s struggles on the road contrasted with his absolute dominance at home.
St. Louis’ Matt Carpenter has been one of the NL’s best this year. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Holding the league’s third-best record and a 7.5-game lead on one of the Wild Card spots, the Cardinals have their sights set on making up a four-game deficit on the first-place Pirates in the NL Central. The Cardinals had a wrench thrown into their campaign when team talisman Yadier Molina went down with a sprained knee at the end of July. The team has gone 4-5 since and lost 2.5 games of ground in the process. Molina won’t be available for this series, though the team hopes to have him back in a week. St. Louis still has plenty of firepower at the plate and on the mound, and they have one of the game’s best farm systems to supplement their current roster. But with the Pirates showing no signs of letting up, the Cardinals will have to find another gear to avoid the one-game Wild Card playoff for the second straight season.
HITTING: 4.9 Runs Scored/Game (1st in NL)
The Cardinals may be without their best player, but they have plenty of offense, young and old. Veteran outfielders Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday continue to provide formidable punch in the Nos. 2 and 4 spots in the lineup. The switch-hitting Beltran has hit 20 home runs this season at age 36. Holliday’s .281 AVG/.362 OBP/.446 SLG supplies plenty of all-around value, though each component has been on a gradual five-year decline. Surrounding them in the lineup are second baseman Matt Carpenter, first baseman Allen Craig and third baseman David Freese. In just his second big league season, Carpenter has become one of the game’s most valuable players, ranking 10th in NL Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. His .379 on-base percentage provides plenty of opportunities for the top of the lineup to drive in runs. Craig, meanwhile, has proved to be a steal as an eighth-round pick in the 2006 draft, with a consistently .300-plus batting average despite a loss in power this year. One thing the Cardinals probably won’t be attempting is base theft. They’re a lead-footed bunch that ranks last with 41 stolen-base attempts in 114 games.
PITCHING: 3.7 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in NL)
The Cardinals’ lack of speed would hurt them more on defense if not for the fact that the team’s pitchers resolve one-fifth of all plate appearances with strikeouts. They also are excellent at avoiding free passes. Tonight’s starter is 26-year-old righty Lance Lynn, who is having a nearly identical season to his breakout campaign last year. He employs a low-90s fastball and high-80s slider/cutter he leans on versus righties, as well as a two-seamer and change-up that he drops versus lefties. On Saturday, the Cubs will see promising 6-foot-6 right-hander Michael Wacha take the mound. Though the 2012 first-rounder has a 4.58 ERA through three starts, he has good peripheral numbers and has held his own so far. He sports a low-to-mid 90s fastball with great downhill plane, a tight curveball that he hasn’t pulled out much in big league action, and an impressive mid-80s change-up. The series wraps up against right-hander Joe Kelly, who has done Yeoman’s work as a swingman the past couple of seasons. His power sinker has acclimated well to starting, and he’s coming off four great outings in a row. Closer Edward Mujica has salvaged a ninth-inning role that could have been a disaster with Jason Motte missing the season due to Tommy John surgery—and after Mitchell Boggs’ awful audition. But it’s yet another outstanding young arm, lefty Trevor Rosenthal and his 98-100 mph fastball, that has batters shaking in their boots when it most counts.
Darin Ruf has been on a tear for Philadelphia. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
The Phillies are aging before everyone’s eyes, and so far, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has seen his team suffer the consequences of sitting idly by. The team’s big offseason acquisition was infielder Michael Young from the Rangers. Though he’s had a bit of a bounce-back season at age 36, his on-field decline over the last several years is obvious. Ryan Howard, 33, is merely an average first baseman now—and one the team is stuck with through 2016. Second baseman Chase Utley, 34, still provides a lot of value when healthy, though he too is on the natural decline player’s experience after their typical late-20s peak. They’ve also been without 36-year-old ace Roy Halladay since May, and he was a disaster before going down with a torn rotator cuff. But never have things looked as dire as they have the last couple weeks: The Phillies have lost 13 of 14 games, scoring 2.4 runs and allowing 5.8 per contest. They’re now 50-61 and 17 games back in the one-horse NL East.
HITTING: 3.8 Runs Scored/Game (14th in NL)
Out are Howard (knee), Dom Brown (concussion) and Ben Revere (foot), leaving the Phillies to throw left fielder Darin Ruf and third baseman Cody Asche into the fire. The former has been on a tear, while the latter has struggled mightily. With Michael Young, Howard and Utley—as well as catcher Carlos Ruiz and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, both 34—all on downward paths, it’s the trio of mid-20s outfielders that was hoped to round out some of the lineup’s rough edges. Only the 25-year-old Brown has fulfilled his promise, and even he has mixed a torrid few weeks in late May/early June with plenty of slower periods. The 20th-round pick in 2006 struggled with low batting averages in auditions the past three seasons, but he finally earned a starting role with a good spring and has been the team’s most valuable offensive player (.271 AVG/.316 OBP/.531 SLG) outside of Utley. Brown is far from a perfect player, however. He’s hacking away more than ever—with 76 strikeouts to 25 walks—and all 24 of his home runs have been pulled. Center fielder Ben Revere, the 25-year-old speedster acquired from the Twins, had an empty .305/.338/.352 line before going down with a fractured foot.
PITCHING: 4.6 Runs Allowed/Game (T-15th in NL)
The Cubs will miss the still-excellent Cliff Lee this series, instead seeing Kyle Kendrick, Cole Hamels and young prospect Ethan Martin take the mound. Kendrick has seen his ERA spike above four for the first time in three years, as the pitch-to-contact sinkerballer has seen more ground balls squeeze through. He won’t issue many free passes or hangers over the plate, however, so Cubs batters will do well to go with pitches and piece together runs. Hamels also has seen his ERA spike, from right around three the past few years to 3.87. Like Kendrick, he’s seeing more balls in play find holes, and the results have been similar to his off-year in 2009. But still armed with one of the game’s most deceptive change-ups, Hamels is performing significantly better than his 4-13 record would suggest. Coming of an inauspicious major league debut against the Braves, Martin is a promising arm acquired in a 2012 trade deadline deal that sent Shane Victorino to the Dodgers. He has a huge fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s as well as a sharp curve and hard slider. But Martin struggles with his command and has historically gotten hit fairly hard by lefties in the minors due to a weaker change-up. Veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon closes things out, set up by a few young, promising arms in lefty Jake Diekman and Justin De Fratus.